Is there a moral/environmental argument against having children?

Kevin Zollman started an interesting discussion on twitter recently. Lots of people got involved and the discussion inevitably got a bit unfocused and multi-threaded. So I thought I’d try to write up what I thought about it all, building on what others also said in response to Kevin.

Here’s Kevin’s original post:

I’ve noticed that in discussion of the carbon output of various activities, almost never do people talk about the carbon output of having children. People are criticized for eating meat or traveling “too much” but never for having too many kids.

Now, I’m not sure it’s true that the carbon footprint of having children is never discussed, but the implicit suggestion, to my mind, is the more interesting one. Is there a moral/environmental argument against having children, and if there is, why don’t we talk about it? What I’m going to do here is try to reconstruct how that argument might go, and then look at what weaknesses that argument would have.

As Kevin’s post makes clear, the model for the kind of argument we’re looking for is the moral/environmental argument against, say, travelling too much. This goes something like this:

  1. Climate change is a (cause of) harm
  2. You ought to do what you can to minimise the environmental damage you are responsible for
  3. Travel emits carbon which contributes to climate change
  4. You are responsible for the emissions your travel causes
  5. It is possible for you to reduce how much you travel without severly affecting your wellbeing or flourishing
  6. Thus: you ought to reduce your travel to what is necessary
  7. Mandating reduction in your travel does not involve a violation of your rights
  8. Thus: it’s OK for there to be laws to encourage reduction in travel

I’m using this numbered argument as a way to structure my thoughts. What I say in response to each premise (to the extent that I actually stick to that structure) doesn’t necessarily constitute an argument against that premise.

Before we address the argument, we should address a kind of presupposition of the argument. As @SarahLUckelman argued, it’s just a mistake to think of children as a commodity to be consumed. I think this is absolutely right, but I think we can still ask about whether the decisions people make about having kids can be morally assessed. (To the extent, of course, that people are in a position for this to be a decision). Having kids is also not a decision in the way that choosing to take the train rather than flying is. Having kids involves taking on massive responsibilities (to the kids themselves, but also to their other parent(s) and other family members). It’s a commitment that takes place over years and years, rather than at a moment. (I’ve just started reading Segio Tennenbaum’s new book which discusses an “extended theory of rationality” that does better at accommodating such temporally extended actions as compared to standard rational choice theory which conceptualises actions as happening at a time.)

I think the analogue argument against having children is vulnerable to a number of criticisms, as became clear from the responses to Kevin’s tweet. For example, working out how much carbon is emitted by having a child is hard to measure. Kevin responded that measuring the carbon footprint of other activities is similarly difficult, but we do it anyway. I take the point, but I think there are extra difficulties with measuring the environmental impact of having kids. On an abstract level, what we want to do to measure the environmental impact of some activity is to calculate the difference in total emissions of the possible world where you do the activity and the possible world where you don’t. Obviously, in practice this is hugely difficult, but it’s kind of clear what you’re trying to do. And this difference in emissions seems relevant, because it’s a difference between two possible worlds where in other respects you’re the same person. But think about the case of the impact of having children. We want to measure the difference in total output between the world where you have kids, and the world where you do not. But, having kids is a Transformative Experience, and so the “you” who doesn’t have kids isn’t really the same person any more. Having children affects so many of your consumption habits and ambitions and interests and goals and priorities. It’s kind of hard to say why it’s relevant how much less carbon would have been emitted if you had been this totally different person.

A second issue is that it’s kind of unclear how many of the downstream consequences of the decision to have kids should be taken into account. (As @HikeMix pointed out, we don’t say that a doctor is responsible for the additional life years of his patients). Relatedly, it’s unclear how much of the carbon output of having kids should accrue to the parents rather than to the child themselves. The same is arguably true of other decisions, but it seems to me that the questions are bigger and harder in the case of children.

The above seem arguments against (3) and (4). Turning to (5) now. Again, becoming a parent is transformative, so it’s not clear whether it is possible to otherwise live the life that you do without being a parent. And further, it’s not obvious that having children is otherwise morally neutral. If bringing a new life into the world promotes the total utility of humanity (to put it in utilitarian terms) then it might be that the environmental harm is just outweighed. Having kids means being in a position to manifest virtues that you otherwise wouldn’t be in a position to manifest (the virtue of being a good dad, for example). That seems morally relevant?

Despite all this, I think (and it seems many others responding to Kevin think) that prospective parents should consider the carbon footprint of their potential children.

There is then the question of whether we should criticise or even legislate peoples childrearing choices. (Above I put things in terms of laws, but I think the same things could be said about social pressures). I am much more uncomfortable about this. As I said in response to Kevin, I feel like the choice to have kids is so personal (partly because it’s transformative) that I would typically avoid criticising people on this front. Reproductive rights are not just about access to safe abortions and contraception. It certainly doesn’t seem implausible to argue that people have a right to have children, a right they perhaps ought not be criticised for exercising. (I’m not sure about that, but it’s a view that should be taken seriously).

I think I’d have some of the same kind of discomfort at criticising people’s reproductive choices as I do about criticising other people’s religious or cultural practices that I find morally objectionable. Like, I don’t like that that’s what people do, but I don’t feel it’s my place to criticise. Maybe that’s just my British sensibilities making me want to avoid offense and confrontation.

A final thing to say is that birth rates differ across cultures, and with socioeconomic status, so one has to be very careful that one’s criticism (or prospective laws) about controlling who has children don’t end up being racist, classist or just a little bit eugenics-y.

As I look back through the other replies to Kevin’s original tweet, I see lots more pointers to work people have done on this and related problems. So I’ll end this by saying this is my attempt to work through my own view and say a little more systematically (only a little more) what I was trying to say in my various replies to Kevin and others.